China and Russia broke ground on the installation of four nuclear reactors at two power plants in China on Wednesday, at a virtual ceremony attended by leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. The event pooled officials and nuclear engineers from both countries. 

The reactors will have a total annual output of 37.6 billion kilowatt-hours and will be built across from the existing Tianwan and Xudabao nuclear power plants in eastern Jiangsu and northeastern Liaoning provinces. 

He Lifeng, chief of the State Council’s National Development and Reform Commission, a champion of nuclear energy, said at the ceremony that the reactors will run at full capacity by 2026 and could cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by 30.7 million tonnes.

He said the nuclear projects were proof of Beijing making good on its 2060 carbon neutrality pledge made by Xi at the United Nations last year. 

Xi and Putin attended Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony. Photo: CCTV screen grab

Xinhua reported that bulldozers had already started work at Tianwan and Xujiabao.

The state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is taking delivery of key components from Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corp’s plant in Rostovskaya after both sides hammered out design and collaboration parameters.

The reactors, to be built around Rosatom’s proprietary VVER-1200 pressured water unit specifications, were featured in a suite of big-ticket energy cooperation deals signed off by Xi and Putin during the latter’s visit to China in June 2018. 

CNNC subsequently signed a US$1.7 billion purchase agreement with Rosatom’s export arm in January 2019.

Separate reports by the Xinhua Daily said the sprawling, eight-reactor Tianwan plant, in Jiangsu’s port city of Lianyungang, was a poster child for partnerships in which Russia provided reactor know-how and China forked out billions of yuan on licensing and parts.

Tianwan’s first four reactors are of the VVER-1000 type and three of them have been in commercial operation since 2007 as power demand soared when Jiangsu’s economy took off. 

Rosatom said in 2019 that it contributed the vital know-how to the Tianwan project as Russians led the design of reactor cores and other integral systems of electrical and instrument control, fire safety and communications.

The extent to which China is drawing on Russian talent is evident, since CNNC’s role in expanding Tianwan’s capacity has been largely as an importer of components prefabricated in Russia, ranging from pressured containers, reactor core shields to main circulation pipelines.

Xinhua reported that only peripheral equipment would be sourced domestically, with Rosatom setting out all quality specifications. 

Future units will be gradually indigenous, or at least hybrids of Russian and Chinese technologies. With Rosatom’s consent, CNNC reportedly experimented with its own tweaks to the original Russian design for Tianwan’s No. 5 and 6 reactors, now also in commercial operation. 

That said, the last pair of units to be assembled there will be built to the more advanced VVER-1200 standards with little input from China, as CNNC is lured by, among other improvements, higher automation and the impressive durability of core parts including pressured containers and steam generators whose service life has been doubled to 60 years.

Six out of the eight reactors at China’s Tianwan Power Plant use Russian technology and parts. Photos: Handouts

Absent from state media coverage, however, is the uncertain market outlook for China’s homegrown Hualong reactors, which are in commercial generation at other plants at home and in trial use in Pakistan.

But the plan to export the technology to the United Kingdom has met big blowback in recent years with regulatory red tape there threatening to hold back CNNC’s overseas expansion. 

Xi was full of praise when he greeted Putin, saying the Tianwan and Xujiabao projects had a wealth of support from the two nations. 

When CNNC is building Tianwan and Xujiabao into hubs for next-generation nuclear power, Rosatom also likely sees its hook-up with the Chinese SOE conducive to its overseas sales.

CNNC’s deputy general manager Shen Yanfeng told China News Service that Rosatom would organize site trips to the two Chinese plants for prospective overseas clients and energy officials from third countries.